After a natural disaster, an evacuation centre can mean women and children are exposed to another danger: sexual violence

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, dozens of women, and several men, reported sexual assaults at crowded evacuation sites and shelters. But at least one legal expert says much that can be done to prevent these attacks.

Caitin McCartney-Gerber is a staff attorney at Legal Momentum, a U.S.-based non-profit legal group that works to protect the rights of women and girls. She says her group has done extensive research on this topic and has found there are three major risk factors that allow sexual assaults to occur after natural disasters.

  1. A breakdown of law and order, when law enforcement are often busy with other matters
  2. A sudden increased pool of victims at evacuation centres
  3. The separation of families from their support networks

The U.S.-based National Sexual Violence Resource Center says it learned of 47 reports of sexual assault after Hurricane Katrina, though there were likely many more that were not reported.They found that in 40 per cent of the cases, the perpetrators were strangers to the victims, while another 25 per cent were acquaintances.

It’s too early to know whether there have been assaults in the wake of Hurricane Irma, although one local sheriff did promise in a tweet to keep “sexual offenders and predators” away from shelters with children.

McCartney-Gerber says natural disasters can lead to chaos and gives rapists an opportunity to commit their assaults.

“Predators and abusers, when they think no one is looking, they’re going to take advantage of that, absolutely,” she told CTV’s Your Morning from New York Thursday.

Evacuation and rescue centres often give these predators new access to hundreds or even thousands of potential victims who are at their most vulnerable. They can include the disabled, children, and immigrants who predators think will never report the assaults.

Beyond physical assaults, McCartney-Gerber says women can face other forms of degradation during crises.

“After Hurricane Katrina… there were reports of women who were stranded on buildings and the people who came to rescue them had them flash them, lift their shirts, before rescuing them,” she said.

“This kind of thing happens and a natural disaster breeds all kinds of chaos and confusion.”


But there are also many steps that can be taken to prevent such assaults, she says.

“They’re pretty basic steps and a lot of them can be done before a disaster even happens,” she said.

The first step, McCartney-Gerber says, is to ensure there are enough staff, volunteers, and security personnel to adequately supervise shelters.

It’s also important to ensure that these staff and volunteers have gone through appropriate background checks.

“It might seem like, ’Oh, do we really have time for that?’ But the truth is (these checks) can be done ahead of time, and on-site, they only take a few hours. So they’re very important, especially for staff working with children,” she said.

Training volunteers, law enforcement and security personnel about the risk of sexual violence is also important, she says. This training would teach workers what to do when someone comes forward with an assault report, as well as how to connect the victims with medical care.

Finally, communication is important so that evacuation centre evacuees know how to find help, McCartney-Gerber said.

“At the rescue site, you have people piling in and it’s very important that all evacuees are told what the procedures are, who thy can go to, what to do if they see something suspicious, and what they can do if they feel they have been assaulted.”